Diego Simeone isn’t getting too carried away after Friday night, but what his Atlético Madrid team doled out to their city rivals at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey retains some significance regardless.
Atlético bashed Real Madrid to the tune of five goals in the first half and seven over the first 70 minutes. Diego Costa grabbed four (plus a red card after Dani Carvajal cynically fouled Thomas Lemar) as the collective intensity was flipped completely from Tuesday’s dour penalty shootout win over Chivas Guadalajara. Atleti are by no means finished product — no football team in history is at the end of July — but my gosh were they good on Friday, as they dismantled and embarrassed los Blancos.
Here a few observations I made from the 10-goal thriller in East Rutherford.
- João Félix did whatever he wanted. Inside 45 seconds, he laid on the first of his two assists to Costa with a deft pass square into the former Spain international’s path before the ensuing bounced in off Sergio Ramos’ boot. Seven minutes later, Atlético’s new number 7 hunted down space near the six-yard box and waited for Saúl to deliver him the cross that he poked home with his right foot. The Portuguese grabbed his second assist after halftime, when he settled a Mario Hermoso long ball and slipped it through for Costa to chip behind Keylor Navas.
João Félix is starting his adaptation to the role vacated by Antoine Griezmann, and early returns suggest it’s going well. The 19-year-old roamed behind Costa, danced around defenders (including a particularly devastating dribble around Nacho in the Real Madrid box) and generally made things look easy — granted, Madrid’s looseness everywhere did him some favors. But João’s ability to simply flick passes so smoothly and to already have chemistry with a forward who struggled so mightily last season are examples of just who Atlético may have acquired here, the type of talent he is.
- Vitolo’s positive preseason may be the big break he needed. It has been a difficult 18 months for Vitolo since he joined up with Atlético last January. A disastrous loan to Las Palmas presaged a lost season amid Atleti’s Europa League run. Ankle and knee injuries last August essentially derailed his 2018/19 campaign before it truly got underway.
Now, though, the ex-Sevilla winger appears as fit as he has since he became a Rojiblanco. He started the shootout win over Chivas and was best player on the team in the first 45 minutes. Against Madrid, he took matters into his own hands with a pretty stunning solo goal which started from his own half.
Based on this form, Vitolo may get a legitimate opportunity to stake out a real role in Simeone’s team — finally. The 29-year-old’s hallmarks — work rate and guile haven’t left him — it’s just been a while since we’ve seen them. Combined with Ángel Correa’s possible transfer to AC Milan, this could be the chance the former Spain international needs to make a mark.
- Atlético’s defensive organization was sound despite all the new additions. Again, Real Madrid were completely out of sorts. But Atlético moved as a unit in midfield (with new captain Koke leading the charge) and in defense. Hermoso and Stefan Savić were more than adequate and the former almost scored a headed goal. Despite a reputation as a more attacking fullback, Renán Lodi held his own against Vinicius on the left flank. Kieran Trippier may be the wild card in this defense, though he kept play alive prior to Correa’s goal.
Atlético’s transformed defense passed the test this preseason match presented, and it was only after the first-teamers exited that Madrid added their other two goals. Juventus on Aug. 10 — one week before the league season begins — will be tougher and will give us a better idea of where this back line really is.